Christmas Tree Delight

Christina here, recovering from the frenzy of preparations and celebrations of the last week by quietly contemplating our lovely Christmas tree. It’s the first time in days that I’ve had a chance to just sit down and do nothing, and to really soak in the festive atmosphere and the beauty of the decorations. Our tree is a real one and its wonderful scent hits you the moment you walk into the room. The twinkling lights remind me of sunshine on snow, something I was lucky enough to enjoy just a few weeks ago in Sweden. And then there are the many ornaments, always a delight to unpack and hang up each year …

Just about every one of them has some memory attached to it for me. There are the tiny Japanese fans reminding me of my time living in the Far East, as well as a more recent purchase of a red Chinese lantern-shaped bauble which did the same. The little silver angel that conjures memories of my two girls helping to decorate the tree when they were little (I bought them one each). A crystal twist from a long-ago trip to Devon, where we stopped at a shop that produced its own glass marbles and ornaments. The silver wreath and ball, bought in the US when visiting family in New England. The mini stocking that was a gift from my mother; the red tassel an indulgence for myself from the Victoria & Albert museum. A red Christmas tree shape purchased because I felt our tree needed more red colour. And not forgetting the Brussels sprout bauble which I bought just for the fun of it as I’m the only person in our family who actually loves sprouts! They are all precious in their own way.

How about you – do your tree ornaments hold special memories? Do you perhaps have weird and wonderful baubles created by your children at school? Or decorations inherited from loved ones? Whatever they are, I hope they bring you as much joy as mine do!

 

Ask A Wench – Festive Food Traditions!

Christina here. As we are approaching the Christmas festivities, I was curious about the Wenches’ food traditions so I asked them what is the food/dish you most look forward to for the holidays? Or is there a traditional family recipe you only make at this time of year?

Anne:  My Christmas dinner is generally pretty traditional; a seafood starter (a big platter of prawns, oysters, crayfish (lobster); then roast pork with crackling or if someone doesn’t eat pork, roast lamb, served with roast potatoes, baked pumpkin, steamed green beans, carrots and other vegies, and a tomato and onion bake. Then we open presents, then hit the table an hour or two later for plum pudding with cream or custard or ice-cream. I know it’s crazy having such a big roast dinner in hot weather, but the craziness is part of an Aussie tradition for those of us whose ancestors came from the UK. An alternative, far easier and nicer tradition is to take a crayfish and a bottle of champagne to the beach.

I hadn’t eaten or cooked my mum’s tomato and onion bake for years, but I made it a few years back for a friends’ Christmas dinner, mainly because I had a bumper crop of tomatoes in my garden. And my guests loved it. It’s amazingly simple — just thinly sliced onions and sliced fresh tomatoes in layers (onion, tomato, onion, tomato) in a well greased baking dish, topped with fresh breadcrumbs (rip the bread into small pieces by hand, don’t blitz it or use packet breadcrumbs), and dot the top generously with bits of butter. I sometimes sprinkle the tomato layer with herbs (basil and thyme), but Mum made it plain with just a pinch of sugar sprinkled over the tomatoes, and salt and pepper to season it. Then bake for around 40+ minutes until the onions and tomato are cooked and the bread topping is golden and crunchy. You can play around with it by adding zucchini (courgettes) and other herbs and adding some kind of cheese to the topping, but for my money the really simple version is the best. There’s a similar recipe here, only with cheese.

But no matter what I’m cooking, I always have this bowl filled with cherries on my Christmas table. It’s a Chinese bowl my mother gave me many years ago when she and Dad lived in Penang and I think of it as my Christmas bowl.

Pat:  Once upon a time, I looked forward to my mother-in-law’s three-layer, white chocolate cake, a decadent confection of white chocolate, mounds of sugar and cream, and ground nuts, with frosting so thick it foamed. Her holiday feasts were works of art. She’s gone now and none of us carry on in her tradition – it really was heart attack city, and we’re all too old to eat like that now. Most of our family is on the other side of the country and the ones here are vegetarians, so tradition has gone out the window. Extravagant cookies have been replaced with brownies, half of us eat ham, and the rest … just depends on what we feel like cooking. It’s the company that matters!

Andrea:  When I was very little, the scent of my Swiss grandmother’s cookies wafted through the house at Christmastime. One of her traditional recipes called for a (complicated) yeast-based dough that needed to sit for several hours under tea towels before having a design pressed into them with carved wooden cookie molds – I was allowed to help! (And some of them have come down to me, which I treasure.) Then we popped them in the oven to bake …

Another traditional family favorite is a cookie called “Hasselnuss Stengeli”. It’s sort of a shortbread, but with ground hazelnuts added. The dough is rolled out onto thumb-width logs, then cut into 3-inch lengths and baked. (Brushing with a glaze of lemon juice and confectioner’s sugar adds a delightful zing.

Recently on our family What’s App loop, my nephew wrote a really lovely note to his Dad (my older brother) about the cookie. He was baking them and just wanted to tell my brother that he was reminded of when he was 24-years-old and emailed asking for the recipe. He then said his dad’s reply still makes him smile: my brother gave him the recipe, but said there was a rule about Hasselnuss Stengeli – when you bake them, you have to eat them with friends.

I think that’s a perfect thought for any holiday food!

Nicola:  My mother-in-law always made a very special salmon mousse for the Boxing Day buffet in the days when the family would all get together at her house. This is our first Christmas without her so we’ll be making it in her honour. It’s the only time I will willingly eat anchovies! The recipe is so light and creamy. It’s fabulous with those little blinis you can make from buckwheat flour. That said, I think my all-time favourite dish is homemade bread sauce. We eat it with everything, not just turkey – sausages are particularly good with it (as you can see in the photo!). The recipe we use is an old family one and it contains cloves, nutmeg, bay and peppercorns. As it infuses in the milk and butter, the smell is so delicious. For me it sums up the scent of Christmas!

Mary Jo:  While our holiday menus generally resembled each other, there was no particular special dish that caused ooh’s and ahh’s. But one annual ritual I always enjoyed was making frosted Christmas cookies with my older sister. I’m not sure where our basic sugar cookie recipe came from, but it was classic and simple. After the dough was chilled and then rolled out, we used cookie cutters shaped like bells and angels and Christmas trees.

We also iced them and our preferred flavor was anise, which we all enjoyed. We put the flavoring in both dough and sugar icing, but what really made the cookies good was rolling out the dough to be very thin, and then using a lot of icing when the time comes so the finished cookies were crisp and sweet rather than doughy and boring. (I took the cookie picture here at a local supermarket–ours weren’t quite as fancy!)

Another cookie that was my exclusive project was Russian tea cakes, which aren’t really Russian but do taste really good. Basically it’s a simple shortbread recipe with lots of chopped nuts added, I generally used chopped walnuts. They’re shaped into little spheres before baking, then rolled in powdered sugar when they come hot out of the oven. When they cool, they get a second roll in the powdered sugar to make them look like little snowballs. Delicious!

Susan:  The days of family Christmas dinners, a big crowd around a big table using my great-grandmother’s gorgeous china are long past – a great time was had by all, but what a production!

Today we work around crazy schedules – sons off to in-laws or on hospital duty, kids who need naps, writers on deadlines <ahem> – getting everyone together takes some finessing. So simplicity rules for Christmas dinners and gatherings now. We serve a casual buffet that features Italian food – it’s part of our family heritage – and provides a cheerful red-and-green table at Christmas. We’ll order fresh, hot pizzas from a local place, and add homemade lasagna, salad, veggie platters, and holiday desserts. Sometimes I’ll make family dishes, such as my mom’s spinach lasagna or my grandmother’s lemon cake with a sugary lemon glaze. We can all enjoy the lovely chaos of a family Christmas without the fuss of a big dinner and lots of clean-up. Later in the evening, we do a crazy Yankee Trader swap (a family tradition since I was a kid) and take our chances on some hilarious offerings. And our red/green Italian food theme is becoming the newest family tradition for holiday happiness and convenience!

Christina:  For me, there are lots of festive foods that I feel are necessary to give that Christmas feeling – saffron buns, gingerbread cookies, Swedish meatballs and pickled herring among them. But to finish the meal off, there’s nothing better than rice porridge – or risgrynsgröt as it’s called in Sweden. This is made with pudding rice, lots of milk and a little bit of sugar, and eaten with sugar, cinnamon and cream or milk. In my family, we used to all eat our lunches separately, then the relatives would congregate in someone’s house for porridge in the evening. A blanched almond was always added (invisible among the white rice), and whoever was lucky enough to get it on their plate was supposedly the next person to get married. This caused a lot of hilarity, especially if it was small child who happened to find it! (Or someone who was already married …) The porridge takes a long time to cook, and has to be stirred constantly, but it’s worth it and the delicious aroma brings back wonderful memories for me!

How about you – what festive foods can you not be without during the holidays?

Unusual Settings

Christina here. I like stories with slightly unusual settings, and have written a few myself. A while back I did a talk with fellow author Liz Harris on how to go about creating them, and it’s not always easy, especially if the story takes place in the past. All authors who write historical novels are really writing about unknown locations since none of us can ever go back there and experience them for ourselves. Therefore, we have to do lots of research to find out what they were like at the time, if possible, then use our imagination to convey this to our readers. Some are more difficult than others!

If we can visit the location in the present and walk in the footsteps of our ancestors, that helps a lot. Some places haven’t changed all that much and it is easy to picture them during times gone by.  Others, like London for example, have obviously changed in many respects, but are still essentially the same layout so it’s possible to imagine where places of interest to us were situated.  And there are often old maps you can consult as well.

Canton – Wikimedia Commons

Things get a little more difficult if we want to write about faraway places or locations which have disappeared or changed completely. I’ve set a couple of my novels in 17th century Japan, for instance, one in 18th century Surat in India, and another partly in 18th century Canton in China, with brief mentions of other places along the way. Canton is now called Guanghzhou and, as far as I can tell, nothing much remains of the old city, so even if I’d gone there, it wouldn’t have helped me much. Instead, I had to rely on old eyewitness accounts to find out what it was like at the time my story takes place.

The potential for getting it wrong is there – someone else will always be more of an expert no matter how much research you do. It’s easy to make mistakes regarding the language, customs, food, topographical layout etc, and even the weather unless you’ve experienced it for yourself. But if we disregard the pitfalls and still decide to set our novel in an unusual place, what can we do to make sure we avoid mistakes?

First of all, we do a lot of reading. The obvious place to start is with an overview of the period and country concerned, plus its relations to England at the time if applicable. It helps to know exactly what was going on in this particular country at the time and also how English people then would have viewed this foreign place (if they even knew it existed). Once you have the basics, you can start to learn about the country itself and its customs now, as they may still be similar. For instance, Japan is a very modern country in many ways, but the people have still kept a lot of their ancient traditions, especially during certain times of the year.

You can read up about the clothing, food, language, traditions, history and so on in general, then do more detailed research into particular events, rulers, wars, possible catastrophes like earthquakes etc – using books written specifically about the period. When you have an overview, you can move on to primary sources like biographies written at the time (if available), journals and travel accounts. Finally, you look for the specific points necessary for your novel (and sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to need until you actually sit down and write the story, so the research is ongoing throughout the writing process).

Old photos, prints or paintings from the time you’re writing about are invaluable, and a lot of the people who travelled to foreign countries in the past were excellent at sketching the scenery and other things that caught their eye. There are lots of images on the internet (although these have to be checked for authenticity), and it’s also fairly easy to find out about the weather during different times of the year in every part of the globe.

The best thing is obviously if you’re able to travel to the country yourself. If not, you have to rely on travel journals and contemporary accounts. Lots of people travelling overseas keep travel blogs now and these can be easily found on the internet.

Museums are another great source, for instance the Victoria  & Albert Museum in London has a wonderful Asian collection. If we’re really stuck, asking an expert might be possible. Authors often e-mail or call complete strangers to find out about specific topics, and they are usually happy to help (sometimes for a fee).

Apart from the scenery, scents and tastes are very important when describing an unusual setting. If this information can’t be found in journals or travel accounts, it might help to visit a restaurant serving that country’s cuisine so you can try it (and smell it) for yourself. Even if it’s not completely authentic, it will give a good idea of what the hero and heroine might encounter.

If we are really lucky, there are reconstructed villages or sets from the past where an author can really experience what it was like. Places like the outdoor museum at Newtonmore in Scotland where they have old dwellings with peat fires; the Viking village in Ribe in Denmark with its longhouses and workshops; and Butser Ancient Farm with its Iron Age huts. All these really helped me imagine what life had been in the past.

Setting isn’t just the location where the story takes place, but it can be things like ships and carriages the characters travel in. For my first historical, TRADE WINDS, I needed to know what it would be like to sail to China in the 18th century. I was able to go on board the Swedish sailing ship Götheborg (an exact replica of a ship used by the Swedish East India Company) and this gave me the details I needed to recreate my characters’ journey. At the Gothenburg City Museum, I was also fortunate enough to find the journal of Colin Campbell who was the supercargo (or chief of the trading expedition) for the first venture to China. From his account, I was able to imagine what life was like in Canton for foreign merchants.

Another travel journal, that of a Swede called Christian Hinric Braad who travelled with the SEIC to India and China in the 1750s, helped me picture the city of Surat in India for another book, MONSOON MISTS. It was very detailed and incredibly useful.

So that’s a short summary of the work that goes into creating the backdrop to a novel. Do you like unusual settings and, if so, is there somewhere in particular you would like to read about?

A Magical Place

Christina here. There are some places that definitely have a magical feel about them. Places that have inspired countless stories, and where you can easily imagine yourself transported through time. I can’t compete with Pat’s fabulous journey to the land of the Incas in the previous post, but I recently visited Tintagel – the village and its ancient ruins – on the north Cornish coast, and it made a huge impression on me. It’s not as exotic, but it is still awesome!

Tintagel is located in a truly spectacular position. I hadn’t been there for a very long time, and was struck by how beautiful the place was. If I’d been a king or a chieftain of old, I would have wanted to live there too, even if it’s probably extremely cold during the winter months.

Not only are the views breath-taking, but it’s great for defensive purposes too. Originally, Tintagel was important during the 5th to the 7th centuries AD, when it was a port and stronghold, probably occupied by Cornish kings. Later on, in the 13th century, the Earl of Cornwall built himself a small castle there. The ruins of Tintagel castle, and whatever Dark Age dwellings existed before that, are built on a on a headland that is more like an island connected to the mainland by a small sliver of land. There are tall cliffs on three sides, scarily steep.

 

 

Below, on either side, are little coves where you can land boats or go swimming, weather permitting. There is even a cave tunnel that goes right the way through from one cove to the other, and going inside it feels very mystical indeed.

 

 

Visitors can still see what’s left of a Medieval hall and other buildings from the Earl’s time, but I was more interested in the older structures. There are about a hundred small rectangular structures from the Dark Ages (so called because we know very little about the period as there are very few historical sources), so it must have been quite a substantial settlement. Just walking around there made my writer’s brain start spinning with ideas, and I’m not alone – Medieval authors used it as part of the stories about King Arthur, who was supposedly conceived at Tintagel. I really wanted to believe that as it’s so magical!

Most people will have heard of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. It’s a story that has fascinated people through the ages, and it’s easy to see why. A brave and noble king with a magical sword that only he can wield, a sorcerer to help him defeat his enemies, a queen who betrays him with one of his handsome knights, and a treacherous nephew, among other things. All wonderful ingredients for an exciting tale – what’s not to like? But the thing we probably all want to know is (or at least, I do) – was he real? Did he actually exist? Sadly, no one knows for sure, and most historians doubt that he was a historical figure, although it is possible.

Some people think he was a Roman leader who stayed behind when the legions left Britain in the 5th century. Others believe he might have been Welsh, and a leader of the Britons fighting against the Anglo-Saxon invaders who came swarming in shortly after the Romans’ departure. His name is intriguing – I’ve read that Arth/Arto meant ‘bear’ in Welsh/Brythonic respectively, and Ursus is also Latin for ‘bear’. So perhaps the two were somehow joined together to form one name by people who spoke both languages? It could also be derived from the Roman family name Artorius, or from the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Major – Arcturus (which means ‘Bear Guardian’).

Tristan and Isolde by John William Waterhouse – Wikimedia Commons

Someone called Arthur is mentioned in an early Welsh poem called Y Gododdin, and in a few other historical sources, most of them written down long after the time when he was supposed to have lived. Later writers used these tales as a basis for their own re-tellings – particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes. Their stories added a lot of imaginary details and new characters, and are the ones we would recognise as those of King Arthur. And the original tale spawned many others that we know and love today, like Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde as she’s also called).

Tristan and Isolde by Edmund Leighton – Wikimedia Commons

In this wild and windswept place, it’s easy to imagine yourself back in the 5th century, and to conjure up brave warriors and their families living there. It made me want to write something set during the Dark Ages, just so I could use this fabulous location as the background. I could quite see why poets like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and artists like the Pre-Raphaelites were obsessed with tales of chivalry set in locations such as this. As a huge fan of their work, I understood where their inspiration had come from.

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse – Wikimedia Commons

The 19th century revival of interest in the Arthurian legends gave rise to so many amazing paintings. These two works by John William Waterhouse and Edmund Blair Leighton show their take on the Tristan and Iseult story. I love old-fashioned poetry, and Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott is wonderful! If I’d been a painter, I would have wanted to capture this story on canvas as well.

The idea of chivalry and romance has always resonated with me – perhaps because I was hooked on fairy tales as a child. My only problem with them is that most of the Arthurian stories seem to have sad endings. They always seem unnecessary to me, and I itch to rewrite them. (Actually, I usually do that in my head). I guess I’ll just have to pen my own Dark Age story with a guaranteed happy-ever-after!

How about you – do you like the stories of King Arthur, and do you believe he could have been a real person?

Treasures of Gold and Silver Wire

Eliz portraitChristina here. I may have mentioned this before, but back in 2015 something quite amazing was discovered in the little village church of St Faith’s at Bacton in Herefordshire – a piece of cloth from one of Queen Elizabeth I’s dresses. It had been used for centuries as an altar cloth, and the parishioners had no idea what a treasure they possessed. When it was rediscovered, it was rather grubby and worn, and didn’t look particularly impressive. The reason the experts could be sure that it really was one of Elizabeth’s dresses, though, was that it’s made of cloth of silver. Under the so-called Sumptuary Laws of the time, only members of the royal family were allowed to wear it, so it had to be hers. Despite the state of it, it’s priceless, because it is the Tudor queen’s only surviving piece of clothing, even though she reputedly owned about 1,900 dresses in total. Not a single one of them remain, except this small fragment with beautiful embroidered motifs in all the colours of the rainbow. In the so-called Rainbow portrait of the queen, she wears a similarly embroidered gown and this shows how the completed dress would have looked.

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